St Brendan the Navigator
For all the Saints: Brendan the Navigator
The Celtic Church distinguished three types of martyrdom: red martyrs died for the faith; green martyrs left the comforts of home to live as hermits or in community; and white martyrs were the missionaries.
St Brendan was born about 486 near Tralee, Ireland. He was raised by St Ita (about whom we wrote in January), and educated by her and the monks. He was ordained a monk by St Erc in 512 and became a founder of monasteries, mostly along the Shannon River, and most notably Clonfert, a major mission center. Brendan was also a sailor and took off in 530 with a shipload of monks in search of the so-called Blessed Isles, a mythic land of beauty lying “to the West” that were mentioned already by Plato. “The Voyage of Brendan the Abbot,” a 9th century document, tells us that in this seven-year journey, he made it as far as America. Who knows? Columbus read it before he set sail.
Brendan, a shining example of white martyrdom, was willing to search for others with whom to share the Christian faith. He was not looking for captive audiences nor did he force his faith on others. In HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION, Thomas Cahill writes that Ireland was won for Christianity without bloodshed, and consequently folks looked for other ways to give their lives for the faith.
The monastery did not survive a final attack in 1541, but the Cathedral of St Brendan, Ireland’s oldest living church, remains active at Clonfert. St Brendan founded Clonfert in 557 after his famous voyage, and became a sort of pied piper for people interested in mission work who were attracted by his expansive spirit. He died at his sister Briga’s monastery at Annaghdown in 577.
The tropar, a commemorative liturgical hymn, says, “The Divine Likeness has been perfected in thee, Father Brendan, for taking up the cross thou hast followed Christ….” Surely Brendan is a navigator for our times as well as his own: an adventurer willing to risk new voyages for his faith. We commemorate him on May 16.
Published 14 May 05